Once Brazil’s capital city, Salvador was the jewel in the crown for the Portuguese Empire. As a major port for Brazil’s sugarcane and slave trade, it was the country’s most important city for three centuries. Today some neighbourhoods feel totally forgotten, while others have never felt more alive.
My taxi from the airport speeds into town, past so many startling contrasts – rich and poor, old and new, the natural and the man made. One moment, lavish, shiny apartments flash by; the next, it’s cracked pavements and make-shift houses. Traffic lights bring us to a sudden stop and the driver starts drumming his hands on the steering wheel, singing along to a song only he can hear. It’s something I notice again and again in Salvador – the locals here seem to have music in their veins.
I arrive in Pelourinho, an area named after a whipping post which slaves were once tied to and punished. Today it’s a charming, energetic neighbourhood brimming with 17th and 18th century architecture, open plazas and churches laden with gold. Pelourinho’s streets form a sometimes steep cobblestoned maze, winding past bars, restaurants and colourful shop-fronts selling clothing, handmade crafts and souvenirs. Women in traditional Bahian dress – colourful starched skirts and turban-style headdresses – greet passersby. The thunder of street drummers ring out in the distance. These are the streets where Michael Jackson once filmed the video for ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. A tribute to the late pop star still stands as a reminder.
Nearby is the Lacerda Elevator (above) – arguably the city’s most famous landmark. This art deco elevator is 72 metres tall and whisks you from Cidade Alta down to Comércio in only 30 seconds, providing sweeping views across the achingly beautiful Baía de Todos-os-Santos along the way. The top of the elevator is an ideal spot to watch the sunset; down below the sketchy streets and the souvenirs and handmade trinkets of Mercado Modelo await.
Another famous landmark is the 18th century Nosso Senhor do Bonfim Church, which lies just a few kilometres north of Comércio. It’s famous for its coloured ribbons which flutter hopefully in the breeze, tied onto the front fences by people in search of a miracle. This church’s supposed healing powers make it a popular shrine. Inside lies ‘the room of miracles’, a rather haunting place filled with wax casts of body parts that people either want healed, or claim have been cured by God already. The walls are plastered with photos of people and slips of paper thanking God for his help. The church’s ribbons can be found all over the city and are icons of Salvador and Bahia as a whole.
Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra, on the city’s most south-western point, is home to South America’s oldest lighthouse. It offers striking views across the bay and is another popular sunset spot. The maritime museum’s exhibition celebrates the history, anthropology, geography and culture of Salvador’s immense bay. On display are coins, stamps, bottles and war materials that had once been submerged for some 300 years.
Along Salvador’s southern coastline is where you’ll find the city’s finest stretches of beach, but if you’re in the mood for swimming, visit Porto da Barra. This west-facing beach has calm, warm waters and sublime sunset views – best enjoyed from one of the area’s relaxing bars.
If you’re keen to get a taste of Salvador’s bohemian side, Rio Vermelho is the place to go. From Thursdays to Sundays its streets have a Carnival-like vibe, thanks to DJs and the lively crowds they attract. There are plenty of cool places to eat and drink. Sip a cocktail or two at the trendy Chupito Bar or tackle the giant burgers and milkshakes at Coz2 Garage. Boteco do França serves excellent Brazilian food in their outdoor courtyard. Tuck into the mouth-watering pizza at Companhia da Pizza. Or if you’re in the mood for something more upscale, sample the superb Asian fusion menu at Takê.
With its coconut palm trees and white sands, Itapuã beach is an ideal spot to take a stroll. The well-known song ‘Tarde em Itapuã’ lures curious visitors out to this laid-back neighbourhood. The delicious scent of acarajé – a spicy snack made from fried beans – wafts from the kiosks. In the evening, vibrant Villa Bahiana is a buzzy spot to unwind with friends.
Where to stay?
Pelourinho might be charming and picturesque, but its steep hills and crowded streets can be tiring – which is why Casa do Amarelindo is such a welcome oasis for travellers. This beautifully restored 19th century building offers 10 lavish rooms, a terrace swimming pool, two bars, two interior garden patios, plus a chic restaurant serving locally sourced Bahian cuisine.
Rooms are spacious and well-appointed with solid timber floors, soundproofed French doors, soaring ceilings and a super-king-sized bed with premium linen. Our private patio was drenched with sunshine and offered superb views across Pelourinho’s rooftops and the vast, sparkling bay. Our bathroom had a tropical rain shower, while other rooms offer hydro-massage bathtubs – a rare treat in Brazil.
The rooftop bar is a relaxed, breezy affair. Their list of caipirinha flavours is long and tempting, and its high vantage point makes it an ideal place to enjoy a cocktail and watch the sun sink into the bay. At night, the boats on the water and the city lights twinkling in the distance make for the perfect nightcap.
Breakfast is definitely worth waking up for, but in this hotel you can eat it whenever and wherever you want – by the pool, on the balcony or in the restaurant – it’s up to you. The coffee is strong, the fruit fresh and the tarts and pastries delicious. Of course, with French owners, we would expect nothing less.
Standard rooms start at R$436 / £105 per night: casadoamarelindo.com.br
Check out Brazil’s finest boutique hotels: hiddenpousadasbrazil.com
Article was published in the September edition of Brasil Observer newspaper, London. Download a copy of the Salvador article here.